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Richard Wagner: Parsifal
13 Feb 2006

WAGNER: Parsifal

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s Parsifal, first staged by English National Opera in 1999, is given on this Opus Arte DVD in a 2004 performance led by Kent Nagano at the Baden-Baden summer festival.

Richard Wagner: Parsifal

Christopher Ventris, Waltraud Meier, Matti Salminen, Tom Fox, Thomas Hampson, Baden-Baden Festival Choir, Berlin Deutsches Symphony Orchestra, Kent Nagano (cond.)

Opus Arte OA0915D [DVD]

 

Lehnhoff lays out a provocative, if encumbered reading of Parsifal that explores three peculiar notions, explained in the DVD’s accompanying notes and in the course of Reiner Moritz’s accompanying documentary Parsifal’s Progress. First, Lehnhoff has an unorthodox view of Gurnemanz, whom he characterizes not as the sacerdotal father-figure familiar from conventional productions, but as a reactionary, unhinged authoritarian bereft of genuine human feeling. Second, Lehnhoff finds that if there is any redemptive message in Parsifal, it describes an enlightened humankind that has discarded impotent, atavistic religious ritual and doctrine. This notion is leveraged upon his view of Gurnemanz. Third, Lehnhoff assigns Kundry the role of redeemer.

From Moritz’s film we know that Lehnhoff believes Parsifal is essentially a utopian work, where utopia is a dynamic principle that has nothing to do with religious tribalism or any other fixed identity. Lehnhoff advocates this notion of utopia in several ways. Most strikingly, he dampens Kundry’s act 3 reconciliation with the Christian god through her baptism and death: she does not die, nor does her baptism bind her to the Grail or its acolytes. Instead, she finds in herself the strength to rescue Parsifal, and all humankind, from the thrall of that pernicious fetish object. Subtle adjustments to Kundry’s behavior in act 3 hint at her evolved capacities. Wagner left to his successors the task of resolving the troubled dialectic of male and female in Parsifal, and Lehndoff takes up the challenge, claiming that Kundry “revokes the unnatural separation between men and women.” (Another interesting attempt to engage this problem is found in Hans Jürgen Syberberg’s 1982 Parsifal, where the sexual dialectic is embodied in a divided male and female impersonation of the role of Parsifal.) A kiss that Wagner instructs Parsifal to place on Kundry’s forehead is followed by the pair’s unauthorized cathartic embrace. Moreover, Kundry dispenses quickly with the servility that Wagner conferred on her in act 3, that trope of feminine submission summarily expressed by Wagner in her muttered “dienen” (“to serve”). At the end, her gaze as she observes the Grail knights and Parsifal is not passive, but reflective and critical. Much earlier, Kundry’s act 2 verse “Oh! – Sehnen – Sehnen!” is delivered by Meier with uncanny calm and self-consciousness, so that her longing is partly erotic, partly spiritual, but self-aware, not hysterical. To authorize all this, Lehndoff appeals to Goethe: Kundry is das Weiblich, the feminine force celebrated at the close of Faust Part II, the creative energy that impels human progress. This new Kundry is a counterpoise to the new Gurnemanz, and she brings about an unexpected turn of events at the end of the opera, whereby Parsifal abdicates his kingship to follow her into an alternate, Grail-free redemption.

The set of act 1, scene 1, is a minimalist courtyard dominated by a whitewashed rear wall of stone, the battlement of Monsalvat. Pockmarks, fissures, and seeping piles of rubble record a long history of assault. Right of center, a boulder or—as the DVD notes tell us—meteor, has impacted the wall and remains lodged in it. This meteor is a memorable device but nevertheless forgotten in the subsequent acts; Meier fishes for its meaning in her filmed interview, but even being on stage doesn’t help her find it. A visually interesting, if unintelligible use of the meteor is its slow spiraling during the transformation scene, when it has become detached from the fortress wall and courses once more through space on its axis. Recalling the medieval tradition that the Grail was a stone I’d almost hoped the meteor was this production’s Grail, but it was not. The transformation scene is altogether an early disappointment: perhaps set on restraining effects (or costs), the transformation music, one of the glories of nineteenth-century orchestral writing, is accompanied by Gurnemanz’s and Parsifal’s ungainly swaying in place, to which the camera adds the insult of loitering at angles that betray the already weak illusion. Salminen’s and Ventris’ earnest, slightly deranged facial expressions can’t hide the incongruity of sublime music and deficient mis-en-scène.

The Grail ritual of Act 1 takes place on a concave, twilight dreamscape dotted with unoccupied chairs placed on the sharp, inaccessible vertical slope of the rear stage. The stage offers egress only through the two apertures from which the Grail knights threaten to pour onstage. They arrive, augmenting Amfortas’ distress, in disciplined military filings. Wagner’s heretical musings on the Eucharist are sung with militancy and certitude, but the production neatly underscores the chasm between the knights’ chorale and the women’s unwelcome Augustinian discourse on sin: the knights’ discipline is momentarily shattered by the chromatic female sounds, and they cast about nervously for their source. The point is effectively made: male and female, salvation and sin, are musically and visually in conflict, and this Grail community is frightened of women.

In act 2, Klingsor’s magic garden is situated on the same flexed stage as the Grail ceremony, which suggests the coexistence rather than alienation of the two ethical worlds of Gurnemanz and Klingsor. Even some of the mysteriously unoccupied chairs remain on the rear slope. (Who was meant to sit on those chairs, which are never occupied?) The coup de théâtre at Klingsor’s defeat is modest but effective: the law of gravity, suspended in the Grail ceremony and in the magic garden, is instantly restored, the precarious chairs of the rear slope crash to the ground, and the cinders of some unseen ruined canopy rain down on the stage.

The stage of act 3 is punctured by a large rectangular cutout through which train tracks emerge and curve downstage. The track bed is the path along which Parsifal finds his way back to the Grail, and the path he, Kundry, and others will take to leave it. Kundry had evidently used the tracks to find her way back earlier; she lies at their end in a heap, concealed by a white shroud when Gurnemanz wakes her.

Andrea Schmidt-Futterer’s costumes suggest Asian inspirations: the monochromatic, pallid squires and knights of act 1 evoke the terracotta warriors of Xi’an. Klingsor and the Parsifal of act 3 both seem inspired by shogun armorial design. Act 3 affirms the Xi’an allusion: a shallow pit is occupied by child-sized clay figures representing long-dead knights. During the orchestral interlude preceding Titurel’s funeral a camera lingers close up on the clay figures, like a fragment from a Last Judgment altar.

Offstage light plays an important role in the proceedings. Full-spectrum light cast from off-stage is used to suggest the peace of the lake where Amfortas will bathe, and later in act 1, spokes of light activate the transformation scene. Yellow light reflects from the skeletal Titurel’s blood spattered armor. Only an opened slat of blinding white light indicates the presence of the Grail in act 1. And the emotional temper of act 2 is measured by the same rectangle of light. Instead of white light, pink and purple hues of Kundry’s seductions give way to piercing yellow as Parsifal experiences anguish and guilt. Significantly, the Grail-light is missing from the act 3 liturgy, when another distant light draws Kundry and Parsifal away from the stage.

Kundry and Parsifal enter act 1 as a riot of sylvan color, wearing organic, primitive costumes of feathers, wood, and cloth, like figures from a Renaissance woodcut of New World Indians, though Parsifal, crouching with his little bow and arrow, might have wandered from pages of James Fenimore Cooper. Kundry’s avian costume sports wings, so the squires’ sighting of her horse is absurd. Kundry’s wings remain a prominent motif. In act 2, she appears behind the Flower maidens concealed in a chrysalis; when she emerges from this she is clad liked a winged insect. She loses those wings in the course of Parsifal’s rejection, and with them her stiff arthropod body spasms.

Overall, singing and acting in this production are more than admirable. Matti Salminen seems to have understood Lehnhoff’s conception of Gurnemanz, and a viewer may grow uneasy watching and hearing him on this account. Salminen’s eyes betray roiling fanaticism, his posture suggests reservoirs of anger, and his first act narrations are delivered in accents better fitting an inquisitor than a lofty historian of the Grail. The listener will detect this in, among other passages, his angry “Jeder ist’s verwehrt” and his anguished “O, wunden-wundervoller heiliger Speer!” Gurnemanz’s single-minded obsession seems to sustain his character through act 3. He does not really decay like the rest of the Grail community, despite his self-description as “tief gebeugt” by age and sorrow. Salminen’s Gurnemanz always seems preoccupied; he delivers his long narratives not in long musical arches, but in halting, painfully remembers phrases.

Christopher Ventis is a fine, if not ideal Parsifal. His portrayal of innocence is ham fisted (this hopeless part of the role is almost always unwatchable, with even sexagenarian singers cavorting as the lanky adolescent), but atoned by his more convincing portrayal of Parsifal in third-act maturity. He is not inspiring as a Grail king, though, and we are not as surprised or disappointed as we ought to be when he surrenders the crown in the end. He can be frustrating to watch, as when he ignores Waltraud Meier’s most volcanic looks in act 2 and stares determinedly toward the conductor or prompter. Distractingly, he habitually heaves his body to the music’s rhythms, almost bouncing to dotted-rhythms.

Waltraud Meier proves an exceptional Kundry. Her acting shows disciplined devotion to the production’s intentions. She is always captivating, and does not lapse into the commonplaces of operatic stage acting—she acts with the camera in mind. Only as she begins her act 2 seduction of Parsifal do her blandishments briefly fall flat for lack of a convincing maternal tone. As the scene progresses and she asks Parsifal for compassion for her own suffering and promises him godly knowledge, her passion becomes sweeping. Her bodily gestures are never superfluous. Especially balletic is her pantomime of the seduction of Amfortas as Parsifal imagines it in his hallucinatory outburst “Ja, dies Stimme! So rief sie ihm.” (Lehnhoff takes Wagner’s stage instructions here very seriously.) Meier works earnestly with the director’s conception of her as an insect in act 2, and gives meaning to an otherwise unpromising costume. She eschews melodramatic cliché in favor of a more pathological rendition of Kundry. She is puppet-like in acts 1 and 2, her limbs pulled into improbably gestures by the sound of a meaningful word. Her convulsions climax in act 2, when she is most dehumanized. In act 3, she acquires for the first time a human, even classical bearing.

Thomas Hampson’s Amfortas is not, as would be customary, an object of mixed reverence and pity, but he is relentlessly pursued and harassed by his desperate knights. He never enters in solemn procession, but always in full flight from his own followers, frantic to evade their demand that he celebrate their liturgy. This Amfortas must have the strength to run. Accordingly, Hampson’s Amfortas is less prostrate, less helpless, and more histrionic and physical than most. Wild-eyed in some close-ups, there is sometimes more than a whiff of Norma Desmond. When he collapses, it is more from fear and despair than from his wound; his ailment is more psychological than physical. As the curtain falls on act 1, Lehnhoff leaves us with a pietà of Gurnemanz supporting the fallen Amfortas, a rare and well posed moment of pathos. Hampson is more vocally forceful than many Amfortas interpreters, but his singing is predominantly refined and lyrical, apart from his last phrases in act 3, when he begins to shout.

Tom Fox’s Klingsor is suspended, mid-air, in the center of a scrim of an enormous and menacing pelvic bone that suggests his ossified sexual fixations. His poise and gestures suggest a spider. Fox’s acting and singing are both good. The production dispenses with his usual necromancer bric-a-brac.

The singers all suffer in Moritz’s long and unhelpful film Parsifal’s Progress, which fills over an hour, of which no more than four or five minutes contain insight and the rest interminable excerpts from the production available on the very same disk. What these intelligent musicians might have said has been distilled into banality, and they seem at pains to help us understand things that are entirely obvious or that the production ought to have made clear on its own. A twenty-minute round table conversation led by the excruciatingly articulate Lehnhoff would have been more useful.

The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Kent Nagano’s direction sounds good, very good at times. At its best moments, hushed string passages glow like burning coals touched by a breeze. But woodwind and brass sounds are sometimes anemic or lack subtlety, as in the act 3 prelude. The string section sounds chilly when compared with other benchmark performances, like Knappertsbusch’s 1962 Bayreuth Festival recording for Philips, whose strings are recorded as rich and deeply textured. Tempi are sometimes too fast, as in the knights’ choruses and patches of Gurnemanz’s narrations. The orchestral postlude to the act 1 Grail ceremony is angular and hurried. The first statements of the main theme of the act 3 Good Friday music could use more breathing space; here they are rushed and muddled. The choruses, men and women, sound well enough, but again, comparison of the final chorus of act 3 and the concluding orchestral statements of the “love” motive seem monochrome, and lack the contrapuntal detail and variegated colors of Knappertsbusch’s performance.

In act 1, Grail knights in medieval armor marched in place as they as they sang “Nehmet vom Wein, wandelt ihn neu zu Lebens feurigem Blute” with warrior esprit. Their survivors struggle onto the stage in act 3 for the funeral of Titurel defeated and harrowed, wearing disheveled World War I uniforms complete with gas masks. The anachronism has an important purpose, and a disruptive effect. The historical displacement underscores the temporal distance between act 1 and 3, but in doing so attenuates the opera’s mythic temporality, and overdetermines the work’s meaning. We are plunged against our will into old, external debates that do not clarify, but distract from the Goethean premise of the production: does Titurel’s corpse now denote the death of Hindenburg, and is his funeral attended by an embittered generation of Nazi recruits? Does Gurnemanz’s anointing of Parsifal as Grail king glance at Hitler? Do the Christological overtones of Parsifal’s return and the Good Friday music collaborate with these political acts, or contest them? Does Parsifal’s abdication symbolize an alternate history that never was, or a potential future choice? The production wakes these questions with a jarring crash, and too late.

Lehnhoff’s production struggles against currents not only in Wagner’s vision of the staged work, but also against the manifestly restorative and ritual impulses of his music. The director’s grafting of Goethean laurels to the trunk of Wagner’s opera does not take well: his attempt to divert the final choral formula “Erlösung dem Erlöser!” and the orchestra’s rhapsodic iterations of the “love” motive from their association with the restored cult is neither visually nor aurally convincing. Despite this fundamental problem, the production is still rich with very fine performances by its soloists and some very fresh, lucid orchestral playing, and is worth seeing and hearing alongside other outstanding recordings. As an interpretation of Wagner’s last work, it lacks the depths of allusion and symbolism and sheer beauty accessible in Syberberg’s film (which in my view remains in a class of its own, the best among filmed Wagner interpretations), but it is a thoughtful inquiry into questions that Wagner, at his most embittered and astonishing, thrusts upon us with this work.

Anthony Barone
Manhattan School of Music

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